April 5 -12, 2003
We toured Southern Louisiana for a week, including a few days in New Orleans. Lonely Planet, and presumably other travel guides, tell you most everything you need to know about this area, so I will add just a few comments that might be of use to you.
Here are a few places we particularly enjoyed:
St. Francisville, Louisiana. (More info here.) This is a very pretty, historic town on the Mississippi River. It has a very nice district of beautiful old homes, some of which are attractive Bed & Breakfasts. The small but beautiful Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge is nearby. Lots of birds within. I recommend coffee at the book store and coffee house next the historic Tourist Court near the main intersection of town. A nearby ferry will take you and your car across the Mississippi River for $1.
You can drive within a swamp in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Interstate 10 between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. The good quality gravel state road 975 goes along the west side of the refuge, with spur roads venturing within. Cool.
Jungle Gardens on Avery Island is a spectacularly beautiful preserve of flowers, huge Oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, lots of alligators (who love pets and small children - yum!), and zillions of birds. The island is next to a bayou. Enormous flocks of herons and egrets rest here and can be seen most often in the spring and summer. This is a park you normally drive through on gravel roads (hint: roll down your windows and don't touch the accelerator of your automatic shift car), but you will experience much more if you get out of your car at every opportunity and walk every trail you find. Allow 2-3 hours to experience all of it. This extremely worthwhile Island is located south of Lafayette and southwest of New Iberia at the end of state highway 329, across a very tiny toll bridge (we paid 50 cents). Note that it is not possible to turn onto 329 if you are southeast bound on US 90. Take the next exit and go back to find the exit from Northwest bound US 90.
In New Orleans, don't miss the Audubon Zoo and the Audubon Aquarium. Both are extremely well done. The zoo has a free parking lot. Your AAA card gets you a $2 discount for each. Thursdays and Fridays are school field trip days to the Aquarium. The acoustics within are very boomy. Bring earplugs to tolerate the din of a zillion very excited little people. (I am not kidding...)
Here is a little local gem we found in Abbeville, which is south of Lafayette. We decided to go where the local cars were parked, a method that has served us well over the years.
From the outside, the restaurant doesn't look like much. It has a gravel parking area, a corrugated iron roof and no windows. But we saw a family go inside, so we followed. We found a very clean restaurant with a cement floor and fluorescent lighting. There were hard chairs at plain tables with vinyl tablecloths. On each table was a roll of paper towels that serves as napkins, and a zillion varieties of bottled sauces, most of them Cajun hot.
Sitting at these tables were local men and families, some wearing bibs. In front of every person in the restaurant was a very large metal container full of boiled crawfish. This is THE place in the area for crawfish. The owner told me that she started the restaurant 40 years ago as a seasonal restaurant for crawfish only. She has a process that does the best job of cleaning crawfish in the area. This means no grit. Much later she opened year round and started serving other seafood. But everyone in the restaurant was eating boiled crawfish. Yum!
Later, many local Louisianans have told me that these types of restaurants are called "juke restaurants" and are exactly the kind of places in Louisiana where one finds the very best local food, such as aligator, turtle, frogs legs, and of course, crawfish. The roll of paper towells and the many bottled sauces on the table are a trademark of these places. So ask locally, and go where the locals go. Enjoy.
Richard's Seafood Patio
About an hour or so drive north of New Orleans, between Covington and Folsom, Louisiana (New Orleans Northshore), is Little River Bluffs, a private 500 acre nature preserve. For rent within this preserve on a daily basis are three very private accommodations - two cabins and a chalet. They are isolated from each other and from other buildings, giving the feeling of peaceful, comfortable solitude in a beautiful natural forest. The preserve is on both sides of the Little Tchefuncte River. There are beaches, a pond, and trails through the woods. (The beach for the chalet is private to those who rent it, so go ahead and skinny dip.) The preserve is quite beautiful, and open only to those who stay there. We saw and heard many birds and other animals. The wildflowers were plentiful. (The Azaleas peaked late March.) The lodgings all have complete kitchens stocked with country biscuits, lean Canadian bacon, juices, coffee, tea, and basic seasonings. They have screened porches (wonderful!), swings, hammocks, full-sized refrigerators, stoves and microwave ovens, bar-b-que grills, air conditioning, ceiling fans, fire places, washers and dryers, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels and soaps. I highly recommend staying at this wonderful, little known place for at least a few nights.
Oak Alley Plantation, located near Vacherie, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, offers the opportunity to stay in one of their five cottages in a quiet setting on the grounds and enjoy a full country breakfast in the morning. The cottage in which we stayed had a two bedrooms (one full bed in each), living room (queen-size sofa-sleeper) dinette, full kitchen, private bath, sitting room/enclosed sun porch (screened and windowed - wonderful!)and carport. This was a lovely, peaceful place to stay. I highly recommend it for a night or two.
Some of the other plantations may also offer accommodations. Nottoway Plantation is one of these, but I have not visited it.
Some cautions for accommodations within New Orleans:
Tourism is Louisiana's second largest industry, but apparently our contribution is not enough for the city of New Orleans. It has exorbitant, ripoff tourist taxes for staying within the city. The total state, local, and occupancy taxes for a one night $149 room at the Prytania Park Hotel was an additional $20.37! The quoted rate for parking a car at the hotel (not included in the room rate!) is $10 a day, but after taxes, the charge is really $11.20.
The only way to avoid these taxes is to not stay in the city of New Orleans. I noticed motels just outside the city advertising very low prices. Maybe the taxes are low, too. (I didn't shop.) The problem with staying outside the city is that the commute into the city can be horrible and could waste a lot of your valuable touring time. And parking in the city ranges from expensive to impossible. But if you are arriving at night and leaving in a morning, you could stay just outside the city on your first and last nights there and save a bundle.
Beware: Hotels often do not include parking in the room rate. And there is an exorbitant tax added to whatever parking fee they charge you. There is a public transit system, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. So I suggest that if you are going to stay in the city, drop off your luggage at your hotel and then turn in your rental car, or don't pick up that car until you are ready to leave the city. You really don't need a car to see the sites tourists see in New Orleans.
There are four New Orleans accommodations with "Prytania" as part of their names listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook for New Orleans. Seeking ambiance, I planned to stay at the Prytania Inn III (description here, in the middle of the page). But I mistakenly reserved a room at the Prytania Park Hotel, which was not at all what I was looking for. The latter is an over priced motel type structure with no ambiance to speak of. Our room was smallish, though the location is convenient to the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which takes you to the French Quarter and to a shuttle to the Audubon Zoo. The folks at the front desk were most helpful, at least until checkout. But at checkout we found a $10 a day charge for parking (plus taxes of $1.20 a day), even though we did not park a car at the hotel. The woman who checked us in clearly knew we did not park a car, since she was most helpful in telling me how to return to the hotel after I was to return our rental car that day. The charge was listed as an "automatic posting". The man who checked us out did not point out the charge. When I challenged it, he seemed to excuse himself by saying he didn't check us in and didn't know that we didn't have a car. Well, he didn't know that we did have a car, either. The reason he didn't know was that he didn't ask, and the woman who checked us in didn't note our lack of car on the computer. The bill was corrected when I pointed out the inaccuracy (except for 20 cents of the taxes), but I wonder how many people pay this "automatic posting" without noticing it, even thought they did not park a car in the motel's lot.
The taxes and fees on a $119.99 Alamo week long car rental from the New Orleans airport were an incredible $28.60, or over 23.8% more. If you are doing a circle driving trip that includes New Orleans, you may want to consider starting and ending it somewhere else that has less greedy taxes on the car rental.
There is a public transit system, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
There is a regular public bus that will take you downtown from the airport for $1.25. It leaves from the right end (as you leave) of the arrival area of the airport (upper level). It does not go all the way to St. Charles Avenue, and it would not be convenient if you have a lot of luggage. As of April 2003 the shuttle service to New Orleans hotels costs $10 per person, and a cab to downtown costs $28 for 1 or 2 people.